Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Workers’ Movement

Why Paul Foot Should Be A Socialist
The case against the Socialist Workers’ Party


II. THE LABOUR PARTY: PF’s failure to expose the Labour Party’s role

PF consistently falls into the trap of portraying the Labour Party as in some way less capitalist than the Tories, thus helping to lend credence to a myth which class-conscious workers have long seen through. To Tory sympathisers, therefore, he gives independent confirmation of their received wisdom, that socialism means what the Labour Party stands for (high taxation, hypocrisy about the “poor and needy”, stifling bureaucracy, etc.). And as for Labour sympathisers, he strengthens them in their misconception that the private sector alone constitutes the capitalist enemy, and that the state sector is not really capitalist at all. PF is thus diverting attention away from those more far-sighted sections of the monopoly capitalist class who pose the greater strategic threat, namely those identified with the furthering of state monopoly capitalism (planning, centralisation, etc.), towards secondary enemies, the Tory backwoodsmen whose credibility is in any case zero among class-conscious workers. Thus PF’s fundamental failure to raise the question of state power and expose the class nature of the state lies behind his equally dismal failure to expose the role of the Labour Party.

Marxism, by contrast, teaches that Parliament, along with the whole apparatus of ’parliamentary democracy’, is a part of the capitalist state and thus has a class nature – it is an instrument of capitalist class rule, performing the essential function of providing a ’democratic’ mask for the dictatorship exercised by the capitalist class. Those political parties which give ’parliamentary democracy’ life, that is principally the two main parties, Tory and Labour, thus also have a class character – they are capitalist parties. The Tory Party is openly and avowedly capitalist. The Labour Party has the role of trying to mislead the working class into thinking that all its hopes for socialism – or even social reform – depend on parliamentary activity by the Labour Party. The Tories are thus enabled to make a big hoo-ha about Labour Party policies such as nationalization and so on, and call them ’socialist’, while Labour makes a big fuss about Tories and big business. (At the same time, most Tories have tacitly accepted that these Labour measures have been necessary for capitalism; even if this stance changed, and the Tories took up ’de-nationalisation’ in a big way, Tory opposition to something docs not automatically make it socialist.) This means that in order to expose the nature of capitalism, as openly represented by the Tories, you first have to expose the Labour Party as an essential part of this double act. Those who promote the idea that the Labour Party is in any way less capitalist than the Tories are helping to lend credibility to the idea that there is a fundamental class contradiction between the two main capitalist parties, the performance of each of which is in fact as intimately linked to the performance of the other as are the performances of Laurel and Hardy.


Throughout the post-war period, successive governments, both Labour and Tory, have been looking for ways to grapple with the problems facing capitalism in Britain. Their attempts have focused on the problem of ’economic strategy’, which is the capitalist euphemism for trying to keep workers’ wages down and profits up. The Laurel and Hardy act works like this: The Tories try legislative means to curb incomes; this leads to ’confrontation’, i.e. intensified class struggle. Labour then comes on the stage to bail out the Tories by securing union cooperation, thus ’bringing the country back from the brink of civil war’. Cooperation with the unions, however, has its limits, as the union leadership, no matter how cooperative they may be themselves, do not have limitless coercive powers over their members, so Labour in turn reaches a dead end. The Tories then have to come in and bail them out by using coercive measures again. This in turn leads back to ’confrontation’, and so on ... This familiar cycle constitutes the ’two-party system’ so beloved of bourgeois ideology; it is supposed to be the pinnacle of ’democracy’. PF fails to expose the trickery inherent in this system. He deduces nothing from this recurring pattern of events. Indeed to him it appears not as a pattern at all but as a series of unfortunate coincidences.

“The history of Labour in opposition”, says PF (pp.48-49), “is a history of anti-capitalist, socialist promises.” (In other words, he promotes the reactionary idea that the election-time demagogy of the Labour Party is ’socialist’.) “But,” he continues, “for eighteen years in the last sixty. Labour has been in government. And in all those eighteen years, it has carried out policies which have strengthened capitalism and weakened socialism” (whatever ’weakening socialism’ may mean in a country where the capitalist slate remains intact and where socialism therefore does not exist). How does PF explain this recurring metamorphosis through which, to his nevcr-failing surprise, the ’socialist’ Labour-in-opposition is transformed into the capitalist Labour-in-office? The answer is that he is driven to look for a whole series of fortuitous circumstances in which the Labour Party is thwarted by “other people” (evil Tories, bankers, Unelected Ones, etc.). We are thus supposed to believe that a kind of fateful banana-skin always drops under the Labour Party’s feet at the critical moment, making it turn a somersault at the very time when it would otherwise have begun lo introduce socialism.

Marxist-Leninists, on the other hand, are not reduced to explaining the Labour Party’s record through coincidences and circumstances external to the Labour Party itself. On the contrary, they have always pointed out that the Labour Party in itself, by its very nature, is a capitalist party, just as much as the Tory Party or any other bourgeois party. For the Labour Party works solely within the context of keeping the capitalist state intact (and indeed the Tories are always moaning about how the Labour Party wants to strengthen the state more than they would like). By taking the question ’Who holds state power?’ as the criterion for distinguishing socialism from capitalism, Marxism-Leninism exposes the capitalist nature not only of Labour-in-office (which even PF can do) but also the capitalist nature of Labour-in-opposition (which PF fails to do). PF says that the Labour Party in opposition is a source of “anti-capitalist, socialist talk”; but did you ever hear the Labour Party even hint at the need to ’smash’ the capitalist state? So where is Labour’s “socialist talk”? By skirting round the question of state power, PF ends up confirming the bourgeois caricature of socialism as election-time demagogy; he fails to expose the hollowness of Labour-in-opposition’s “talk” and “promises”, and on the contrary helps to perpetuate the politically backward view that it is justified to believe these promises, and that to be let down repeatedly should merely cause surprise and righteous indignation. Growing sections of the working class have already seen through the sham nature of the Labour Party’s ’socialism’, whether in opposition or not. In this situation, socialists should march at the head of these politically advanced sections and work to expand their ranks and to increase their influence among the people as a whole. PF, on the contrary, places himself far behind such advanced sections of the working class. His failure to realise that the Labour Party is a capitalist party renders him incapable of explaining its behaviour, and his ’leadership’ in exposing its trickery consequently amounts to no more than endlessly registering surprise and resentment after the event.

For instance, he states (p.49) that after the war “it looked as though the government” (i.e. the Labour government) “was carrying out its promises and changing society” (i.e. presumably introducing socialism). “Looked” to whom? It couldn’t “look” that way to anyone who had grasped the class nature of the state. PF has not taken into account the fact that the same thing “looks” different to different people, and thus forgets the standpoint of those class-conscious workers who are capable of seeing through the reformist fraud. It is of course true that under capitalism such politically advanced elements are often a small minority; capitalism’s control of education, the media, cultural and intellectual life ensures that it can make its own outlook dominant throughout most of society. But that is no excuse for just writing out of existence precisely those whose attitude is most crucial. PF has, characteristically, lumped everyone together in one category (and a relatively backward one at that – to use his phrase on p.46, a situation where “the masses still remain passive”) instead of taking the correct attitude characteristic of the politically advanced sections and helping to propagate that.

Wilson’s government of 1964, PF’s saga continues, made promises which capitalism was of course once again unable to honour. But PF still has nothing more useful to say than the wistful comment that “all the promises faded into the air” (p.49), presumably like the dew in the morning. PF rightly ridicules (p.16) bourgeois politicians who use the language of meteorology to describe events they cannot explain (with such phrases as ’economic typhoon’, etc.). Are we not even more justified in ridiculing PFs inadequate explanation of Labour’s behaviour which he describes in equally imprecise (indeed quasi-meteorological) language? Some economic crises can indeed take on the appearance of an uncontrollable event; but a political party is by definition made up of people who consciously, deliberately and publicly adopt a certain standpoint. PFs use of vague metaphors is therefore even less justifiable than that of the economic pundits he ridicules.

According to PF the fact that successive Labour governments have not introduced socialism has nothing to do with the nature of the Labour Party itself. He never says, for instance, that the Labour Party is a capitalist party, or that it does not want to introduce socialism, or that its policies are not socialist. It is just that its ’socialist’ promises ’fade into the air’ under the impact of “other people” who abound in PFs conspiracy-ridden pages. The “once-every-five years democracy” fails to allow the Labour Party to put its ’socialism’ into action because the “class with property” could “contain it, corrupt it, bribe it, bully it, persuade it, chivvy it in the directions in which they wanted it to go” (p.55). For instance (p.52) the frenzied sale of sterling in successive financial crises is represented as the work of sinister forces pitted against the forces of light as represented by Wilson & Co.: “Labour MPs and governments, though they imagined themselves the supreme power in the country, did not control the sale of sterling. This was controlled by other people, bankers, foreign exchange dealers, the treasurers of international companies, none of them elected by anyone.” By once again reserving his worst indignation for such obvious enemies as the Unelected, those ideological sitting ducks at whom he loves to snipe, PF effectively helps to cover up the more subtle role played by the Labour Party, and to confirm the idea that it was all set to introduce socialism but for the wrecking manoeuvres of those capitalist ’villains’. By contrast, Marxist-Leninists hold that parties like the Labour Party are capitalist to their very core, and from the Start of the show, not just from half-way through the performance or in the final scenes. Marxist-Leninists therefore do not feel surprise or indignation at being ’deceived’ by the Labour Party – they know that the only thing the working class can rely on is its own strength in class struggle and are thus never ’disappointed’ by the Labour Party since they never had any illusions about it in the first place. The SWP, by always declaiming about how the working class has been ’betrayed’ or ’let down’ by the Labour Party, thus renders ideological service to capitalism; such a standpoint is an obstacle to propagating the fact that the Labour Party is in itself an integral part of the capitalist act. For at the core of scientific socialism lies the question of the necessity of the seizure of state power by the working class, and the Labour Party has never confronted this task. By going along with the Labour Party’s false claims to be socialist, PF hinders the task of breaking the stranglehold of reformist thinking over the working class and leading it along the road of seizing state power through relying on its own strength. He helps to lend credence to the view that the working class is better served by the Labour Party than by, say, the Tories and that socialism could, given a bit more determination from the Labour leadership, come about through the kind of reformist measures associated with the Labour Party. He thus in effect provides subtle backing, disguised in ’left’ language, for the very same parliamentary road which he claims to oppose.

PF would have us shed a tear for the poor old sods in the Labour Party who have high ideals but are unfortunately dogged at every turn by wicked Tories; the average Labour MP, PF relates (p.55), attempts to “secure for the workers the full fruits of their industry” but “sometimes.. . gets disillusioned and resigns. Usually he stays in Parliament and disintegrates” or gets dumped in the House of Lords. Nowhere in this sob story will you find that PF has any glimmering of awareness that he is talking about the present ruling party of British imperialism, that bloodthirsty war-monster, a party that is universally regarded by progressive workers all around the world with unequivocal contempt. PFs account of its tribulations amounts to no more than a last-ditch attempt to enlist sympathy for it.

But what if the Labour Party should pull itself together and try to translate its “socialist talk” into action? “Even if a Labour government holds firm to its policies through all the obstructions of the banking and capitalist system, even if it allows the pound to collapse and institutes a siege economy, what will happen then?” asks PF in an uncharacteristic flash of imagination (p.57). As an example of “what will happen then” he cites the fate of what he calls the “Labour government in Chile”, a government which “had set up price controls and nationalised the copper mines” and so on. Did the Chilean bourgeoisie and its US backers have the same fervent respect for bourgeois elections as PF? No. “The employing class . . . did not remain loyal to the elected government. It mowed the government down.” It was able to do this because “Allende and his ministers bitterly resisted” the argument for “arming new regiments of rank and file workers to defend the government against any attempted right wing coup.” It is sometimes quite comical to follow PF’s train of thought right through to its logical conclusion: the solemn warning given in this passage can only be directed at an imagined “Labour government” in Britain; the message that thus emerges is that Callaghan & Co. should stop messing about, arm the TUC and “seize” the clearing banks, Shell, ICI, etc.!

Such is the political confusion that results from PF’s failure to grasp that the Labour Party is a capitalist party. At one point (p. 24) he even talks about “the people with property” and “their political party; the Tory Party”, thus revealing that he does not see the Labour Party as their party too. There could be no clearer demonstration of the fact that, hidden behind PF’s apparently forthright rejection of the Labour Party lies a failure to rise above ’labourism’, i.e. the view that the Labour Party is more ’socialist’ than the Tories, or at any rate less capitalist. Labourism is the cornerstone of the whole ideological edifice of the ’parliamentary road’. Only by breaking loose from labourism can the working class come to rely not on reformist or parliamentary means to advance their interests, but solely on their own class struggles. By giving independent confirmation to the premises of labourism, deceptively dressed up in ’left’ language, PF is not at all helping to wean the working class away from the parliamentary illusion as he claims; on the contrary, people like him give parliamentarism a new lease of life.


The Labour Party, then, cannot he said to ’betray’ the working class, for it is not a working class or socialist party in the first place. Those who, like the SWP, make a big ballyhoo about how the Labour Party has ’betrayed’ their socialist aspirations obstruct the task of exposing the capitalist essence of the Labour Party and of thus showing that those who expect socialism from the Labour Party are deluded and must learn to see their own error. The Labour Party has not made any error in not introducing socialism, for it wasn’t created to do that in the first place. There is an argument that is often used in the support of the ’betrayal’ theory: namely, that in the ’good old days’, the Labour Party really was a socialist organisation, but that it has since degenerated. PF’s pages are full of instances of this standpoint, which must be soundly refuted. The Labour Party was never a socialist party from the day of its foundation: it has therefore never ’betrayed’ the working class.

The second half of the last century was a time of very intense class struggles in Europe. In Germany. France and elsewhere the working class staged conscious political struggles which posed an immediate physical threat to capitalist stale power. These struggles also resulted m a threat to capitalism’s hold over people’s thinking – the theory of scientific socialism was born. The working class leaders that emerged in these struggles had by the turn of the century begun to organise themselves into new political parties. The deep roots which many of these parties had in the insurrectionary traditions of the working class and the clarity and perceptiveness of their aims made socialism a powerful revolutionary force. PF is referring to this period when he says, “Before the workers had the vote, people who argued for socialism argued automatically for the revolution” (p.50). In this garbled sentence he shows himself dimly aware of this situation. Then came the winning of the vote and all that went with it.

PF correctly describes the specious attractions of reformism, and then himself promptly falls for them. He describes the reformist argument as follows (p.50): “if Parliament and local councils could be won in free elections by workers’ representatives, then the seat of political power would be transferred from capitalists to workers. Labour governments would then be able to pass laws which would roll back the capitalist system and eventually establish a co-operative commonwealth. The proposition seemed very attractive. It entailed none of the violence and uncertainty of revolutions. Specific programmes could be drawn up for specific elections and specific parliaments, which would then be carried out. Since everyone recognised the ’sovereignty of Parliament’ the wealthy class would be forced to accept Parliament’s laws, and surrender its property.” So far so good. But then, having so succinctly summarised the reformist argument, PF falls for it himself by representing the Labour Party as being both in the capitalist show and at the same time somehow outside it: the workers, he states, before the foundation of the Labour Party, “traditionally voted for the capitalist Liberal Party. The Labour Party came into being to win votes for an independent working class party.” Thereupon he launches into a panegyric of the mass work of that “working class party”, as if the Labour Party was indeed a socialist party (in contrast to the “capitalist Liberal Party”) rather than itself an essential element of the parliamentary diversion.

Parliamentarism tries to represent the struggle between capital and labour as being concentrated in the parliamentary struggles between, on the one hand, the Tories and other avowed representatives of capitalism (remember PF’s reference to “the people with property [and] their political party: the Tory Party”, as well as his reference to the “capitalist Liberal party”), and on the other hand the “working class party”, i.e. the Labour Party. If in some way the confrontation between labour and capital extends beyond the parliamentary arena, then one is supposed to believe that something has gone wrong, and the confrontation should be re-contained within it, by letting off steam with a heated election or some similar political manoeuvre. On the contrary, Marxism shows that the confrontation between labour and capital consists precisely in the ongoing class struggles throughout society as a whole, and that to represent it as in some way ’contained’ within the arena of capitalism’s political circus is an illusion and a diversion. PF, by using such expressions as “the people with property [and) their political party: the Tory Party”, and by clearly counterposing the “capitalist Liberal Party” to the supposedly ’working-class’ Labour Party, is helping to put a bit of credibility into this circus. He is helping to keep capitalism’s political safety-valve in order. He is providing just the kind of tonic that ailing parliamentarism needs.

How was it possible for the bourgeoisie to win over the important section of workers’ leadership that it needed to give credibility lo the parliamentary charade? PF does not face this question. He represents history in pretty much the same way as the bourgeoisie itself does, as a series of developments strung together like beads on a string, with no essential logic connecting one with another. Marxism, however, seeks to look behind events and expose the class struggles that account for them. “Before the workers had the vote,” PF says (p.50), as we have already seen, “people who argued for socialism argued automatically for the revolution ... But then, gradually, and at different times in different parts of the world, the workers started to win the right to vote in elections for Parliament and local councils. Many socialists thought that the right to vote provided a new road to socialism: The Parliamentary Road ... The proposition seemed very attractive ... In Britain, these ideas very quickly won the approval of millions of workers ... The Labour Party came into being to win votes for an independent working class party.” Where in this little tale does PF expose the class struggles that lay behind these events? For instance, what about modern imperialism, which was developing at the very same time as the events he is talking about? Was that just a coincidence?

It was one of Lenin’s great achievements in developing Marxism that he demonstrated that parties like the Labour Party were in fact creations of the imperialist stage of capitalism. Lenin showed how capital’s constant need for new outlets led, towards the end of the last century, to increasing investment in colonial and semi-colonial countries. This enabled capitalism to maintain the high rate of exploitation which the raging tides of workers’ struggle were making increasingly difficult to maintain at home. The ’superprofits’ thus extracted from the barbaric oppression and exploitation of the dependant countries enabled the bourgeoisie to ’buy off strategic sections of the working class leadership (the ’labour aristocracy’) into support for their ’own’ imperialism. The Labour Party provides a perfect example. The high tide of British imperialism was the context and motive force in the crystallisation of this new social stratum, the ’labour aristocracy’. And it was the growing self-assertion of this new social stratum that was signalised in the creation of its own party, the Labour Party. (The year 1900, when the Labour Party was launched, also saw the siege of Mafeking, the ’Boxer rebellion” and occupation of Peking, etc.). We shall be seeing again and again in the course of our critique how PF, a supposedly “international’ socialist, constantly puts out of mind the international situation and thus the phenomenon of imperialism, so that he is at a loss to provide any real explanation for the rise of the Labour Party, which, as we have seen, in his narrative just “came into being”.

There was one big stumbling block, however, for such parties as the Labour Party, the ideology of socialism had been forged in the insurrectionary struggles of 1848, 1871, etc. If the new parties were to declare their belief in socialism, would not the revolutionary nature of their ideology render their marriage with imperialism profoundly unstable? The answer they found to this was to retain the name of socialism and even much of its vocabulary, but to revise out its revolutionary essence. In Germany, where Marxism was widely disseminated among workers, this task caused some problems, the leadership still had to pay lip-service to Marxism, though of course revising out such awkward elements as ’dictatorship of the proletariat’ (i.e. its essence!). In Britain, where revolutionary ideas had been less widely propagated, and had already been under attack by reformism for some time, the task was more straightforward, and many elements in the Labour Party had never had any brush with revolutionary socialism at all. Whatever the variations, however, from sham Marxism to Fabianism, this new political force as a whole, by diverting the energies of the proletariat away from their previous, insurrectionary paths and onto the reformist path, became, in Lenin’s phrase, the “principal ideological prop of the bourgeoisie”. The end of this road was that in the First World War, each of these supposedly ’socialist’ parties supported its ’own’ bourgeoisie, and failed to exert any influence for internationalism; they even served as recruiting agents for cannon-fodder in that predatory war to redivide the world.

Things are quite different in PF’s eyes, however. He is apparently blissfully unaware of the Labour Party’s roots in imperialism, and passes over the dark chapter of its collaboration during the First World War without a mention. The Labour Party first surfaces in his pages as the object of... a panegyric! He applauds (p.50) the Labour Party for setting up newspapers and publishing propaganda leaflets by the million, and for setting up “groups in factories and workplaces to convince people around them of the case for a working class party in Parliament”. He cheers it on in the great parliamentary fraud, by which at any rate, he for one, is duped: “elections became great battles for allegiances, in which the old ruling class representatives used every trick in the book to keep the workers on their side.” He thus shows himself blind to the fact that when the “old ruling class representatives” failed, the role of the Labour Party was to step in and do the trick for them (and, we might add, where even the Labour Party’s hold began to falter, people like PF come in to see if they can’t have one final go!).

It is amusing to see how PF seems to regard the earlier Labour Party as an example for today’s SWP to live up to. Indeed, so carried away does he become that it is difficult to remember as one reads that he is writing about one of the ruling parties of British imperialism, a party which had long been repudiated by all genuine socialists (even, to maintain credibility, by PF’s own beloved Trotsky). So taken in is PF by what people call themselves, that he writes that MacDonald, Attlee, etc., “spoke up for socialism” (p.48). Such is the extent to which PF, by failing to grasp the class nature of the state, has lost Iris bearings and been taken in by sham socialism.

For us, on the contrary, there are two criteria we can apply in analysing the Labour Party – criteria that cut through its claims to be socialist like a knife through butter. First, what has its line been on any of the truly insurrectionary mass movements of the working class in Britain? Secondly, what has been its line on international affairs, and in particular on British imperialism?

PF blandly omits to confront either of these two questions. As for the first, one searches his pages in vain for any mention of, for instance, the great workers’ struggles in the years preceeding the First World War, in which the proletariat, unlike the likes of PF, showed itself unconcerned with “great battles for allegiances” in Parliament and went ahead relying on its own class struggles. The movement of solidarity with the Russian revolution of 1917 is likewise contemptuously ignored, although as an internationalist movement in direct confrontation with the British state it might have been thought a better subject for PF’s pages than his beloved parliamentary goings-on. The conditions of near-insurrection that prevailed on the Clyde-side during the concluding stages of the First World War and the standpoint of its workers’ leaders such as John Maclean are likewise passed over in silence. The Easter uprising in Dublin in which the vanguard of the sister working class of Ireland took part doesn’t come in for a mention. The inter-war struggles of the young Communist Party, also undertaken in the face of repression by the state, apparently don’t attract PF’s attention either. The inescapable conclusion from PF’s remarks on British labour history is that he is not concerned with class struggles of the working class that threaten the state: workers, according to him, are meant to confine themselves to immediate trade union and reformist affairs, while politics (whose central arena is Parliament) is confined to middle class intellectuals like PF himself. That way, PF can give full scope to his eloquence in bemoaning Labour ’treachery’ and so on, while diverting attention away from the question of state power. By our criterion, however, the Labour Party took a reactionary stance on all the above-mentioned struggles that raised the question of state power, so that unlike PF we do not concede that it has ever, as a party, had a spark of socialism in it (though of course that does not apply to thousands of its rank and file members).

Our second criterion for assessing the truth of the Labour Party’s claim to be socialist is its stand on international affairs, and in particular on British imperialism. Once again we have here an uncomfortable question, and like all uncomfortable questions it is swept under the carpet by PF. He would presumably find it awkward to face the fact that the Labour Party, his “working class party”, ruled the British Empire through some difficult years (particularly after the Second World War, in suppressing the Malayan revolution, etc.), so he just omits to mention it. Nor does he refer to the Wilson government’s imperialist activities in Malaysia, Aden, Jordan, Nigeria, etc., its collusion with fascism in southern Africa and its deliberate pussy-footing with the Rhodesian secessionists from 1965 onwards. For this ’international’ socialist, such things are presumably unimportant details! Once again by going along with the Labour Party’s claim to have been socialist, or at any rate would-be socialist, he actually excludes proletarian internationalism as one of the first requirements of socialism, and thus once again drags the word ’socialism’ through the mud.

As we have seen, PF can only register hurt surprise at the Labour Party’s policies when it came to power in 1945. And the “campaigning” which for PF is such a source of admiration “continued all the way to the first Labour majority government in 1945 and even up to the two elections in 1950 and 1951” (p.51). It thus seems that in PF’s eyes the Labour Party remained virgin socialist right up to 1951. What eventually turns him against it is not its opposition to the political interests of the working class in Britain (still less its suppression of the peoples of other countries) but the fact that it gave up this “campaigning”, a circumstance that releases a flood of sorrow from PF; after bewailing the decline in Labour Party membership, he laments (p.51) that “what used to be a formidable propaganda machine has now been wound up”; the sale of the Daily Herald in 1958 and the closure of the Sunday Paper Reynolds News are given as instances. He bemoans the fact that “there have been no Labour Party groups in factories since the 1920s” (p.52). Yet more tears are shed over the dwindling political influence which Labour MPs have over their constituents, which is now no more than that of a social worker over his client (p.52). The “campaigning” of the earlier period was now no longer necessary: “it became established that the majority of workers would vote Labour,” so that “the mass vote was now assured. The Labour Party outside parliament became a machine for pulling that vote into the polling booth” (p.51). PF thus documents the beginning, high tide and decline of the Labour Party’s existence as a mass organisation and in the process shows himself profoundly nostalgic for its ’great days’. For genuine socialists, by contrast, the Labour Party’s collapse as a mass organisation is a welcome development.


As in his treatment of the Labour Party in the past, so also in his treatment of the Labour Party today, PF would have us believe that this Party, for all its perfidious nature in office, is nevertheless somehow a mass party of the working class. He graphically describes how capitalism gets its own way under a Labour government (e.g. on pp. 52-53, where he deals with sales of sterling, the North Sea oil companies, Clay Cross, comprehensive schools, the Ulster Protestant strike of 1974, etc.), and yet nevertheless always manages to come up with the conclusion that the Labour Party itself is to be absolved from blame. Apparently no number of correlated facts will eventually get him to admit that the Labour Party is all part of the capitalist act. He always implies that, stashed away in the constituencies, there is a secret army of Labour Party rank and file members whose standpoint is socialist. Marxist-Leninists, however, reject this view and refuse to kow-tow to a supposed politically conscious mass working-class membership of the Labour Party which no longer exists. In fact in their view those workers who are rebelling against the Labour Party include precisely those who are most class-conscious. For those who have broken with bourgeois reformism the decline of the Labour Party’s mass membership and its hold over the masses is a cause of hope. PF shows his true colours by lamenting the Labour Party’s decline and fondly reminiscing over those bygone days when its ’campaigning’ exercised more control over people’s minds.

One of the tactics PF uses to retain our sympathy for the Labour Party is to harp on the distinction between the Labour government and the Labour Party conference, over which “the Labour rank and file” have some control (p.56). The implication is clearly that the conference is well-intentioned but unfortunately blocked in its good intentions because ”the Labour government is not appointed by the conference” (one would have expected him to say “not elected by the conference”) (p.56). He lists some examples of what he calls “radical measures” passed as resolutions by Labour Party conferences to illustrate his point. However, good intentions and “radical” resolutions do not amount to socialism. It is true that the Labour Party includes in its ranks quite a few well-intentioned though gullible people who are unfortunately taken in by its claims to be socialist. For genuine socialists, however, the task in this case is to disabuse such people of their illusions, not give them excuses for their gullibility, as PF does. (In performing this role, incidentally, PF joins people like the ex-Labour MP Prentice, who complete the illusion by voicing the opposite attitude; where Prentice despairs, PF sees hope, but they both share the view that the Labour Party is a potentially ’Marxist’ force.)

Another tactic used by PF to portray the Labour Party as containing a socialist membership ready at any time to burst free from the trammels of its leadership is in his discussion of the internal democracy of the party. For instance, it is well-known that sometimes a particularly blatant reactionary in the Labour ranks, such as Prentice, just has to be given the push, as the Party’s claim to be socialist would otherwise lose all credibility. PF takes it upon himself to declaim against the “paroxyms of rage” that “this simple form of democracy” causes for “our rulers” (p.56). He also complains that Parliament is kept “undemocratic” through MPs being elected “for life”, as though the simple method of switching to annual elections would make capitalism democratic! For those who have seen through the role of the Labour Party, however, such affairs are of no concern – let the party tear itself to pieces, let it be as ’democratic’ or despotic internally as may be – it is not up to socialists to prescribe remedies to ailing capitalist parties. On the contrary, they should be demoralised as much as possible; all the Labour Party’s contradictions should be utilised for the sole purpose of exacerbating them, and exposing its capitalist nature to the masses, so as to accelerate its demise, not give it a new lease of life as PF would have us do.

Does this mean that socialists should draw no line of distinction at all between the Labour Party leadership and its rank and file members? No; it is obvious that this would be unrealistic, and that some kind of distinction should be made. The criterion to be used for this purpose is whether an individual Labour Party member is prepared to work consistently with revolutionaries on a particular issue or issues; if he is, then his work is a positive factor, and it is the duty of socialists to make the most of it. At the same time, it must always be borne in mind that such a distinction is temporary and relative, and that the bourgeois nature of the Labour Party is absolute; no degree of cooperation with individual members absolves socialists from their duty to expose the Labour Party’s class nature.

By agreeing to work with Labour Party members, is one not admitting that this party, however reactionary its policies, is in fact a workers’ party? No. A party’s class nature is determined not by who its members are, or who votes for it, but by its political line, i.e. whose interests it actually serves. Just because many workers still vote for the Labour Party when it promises ’socialism’, that does not mean that it is a workers’ party any more than the Liberal Party was at the end of the last century when most working-class electors voted for it. Marxist philosophy holds that the ruling ideology in a society is the ideology of that society’s ruling class; in other words, in a capitalist society workers’ ideology remains largely bourgeois. To underline this paradox, Lenin called ’social democracy’ (i.e. the politics of parties like Labour) “the bourgeois politics of the working class”. The Labour Party’s political line is to divert workers’ struggles onto the parliamentary road, thus keeping them within the (increasingly narrow) bounds prescribed by capitalist class rule. The Labour Party is thus a recipe for the prolongation of capitalist class rule - it is a capitalist, not a workers’ party. Thus, though its mass base may include some working class elements, its class nature remains bourgeois.

For PF, then, the Labour Party remains a rallying point for many sincere socialists, who are unfortunately blocked by the right-wing leadership because of the party’s undemocratic structure. He does not unequivocally reject it as being a capitalist institution by its very nature. With such a profoundly mistaken attitude prevailing in their leadership, it is no wonder that the SWP (then IS) was completely at a loss as to what to do when parliamentary elections took place in 1974. Now SWP members frequently deride the attitude of the revisionist ’Communist’ Party in trying to move the Labour Party to the left, and indeed not only SWP members but many other people as well are beginning to realise how nonsensical it is to talk of moving the Labour Party to the left, or of getting it to do anything at all that really threatens capitalism’s interests. But in the 1974 elections, the IS showed that it not only shared many of the CPGB’s illusions about the Labour Party but that it even actively propagated them. The IS slogan – “Vote Labour, but without illusions” – summed up its equivocation. It is common knowledge that whenever Labour has been in power it has worked flat out in capitalism’s interests, as PF himself vividly describes. So to believe that a Labour government is belter than a Tory one is an illusion – it is the illusion diverting the working class onto the parliamentary road. Marxist-Leninists regard Labour as the bosses’ best party, and this standpoint has been amply vindicated by the record of the present Labour government which, unlike the Tory government which preceded it, has got away with blue murder. To tell people that in voting Labour they can at the same time avoid succumbing to illusions is to shirk the first responsibility of socialists – to wean the masses away from reformism and win them to revolutionary politics. Who but the IS could have tied themselves in such a knot0 They know perfectly well that it is illusory to expect the Labour Party to introduce socialism, and yet they are at the same lime such dyed-in-the-wool reformists themsclvcs that they cannot free their minds of the illusion that Labour is more “socialist” than the Tories. They are thus left pathetically clinging to a course of action they themselves realise lo he hopeless. This despairing psychology, based on the consciousness that capitalism has nothing to offer and yet hanging on to its assumptions, has been compared by one Marxist-Leninist author to the philosophy of William the Silent of the Netherlands, which he summed up in his motto. “It is not necessary to hope to undertake, nor to succeed to persevere.”

Marxist-Leninists, on the contrary, are clear in their standpoint towards the Labour Party. It is a product of imperialism and has been tied to imperialism from its inception. Its very organisation, which is constituency-based, is tied to the parliamentary system. It is consequently dominated by bourgeois careerists. Genuine socialist parties, by contrast, are based at the place of work, where exploitation takes place and the contradictions of capitalism are focused, and where workers are in the best position to exercise their strength: this enables working-class elements actually to exercise leadership in the party, not just do the donkey work or turn up to vote. The Labour Party, apart from social activities in some areas, and periodic election campaigns, is a mere shell, and not a mass organisation. As far as the mass struggles of the working class are concerned, the Labour Party is largely an irrelevance; when it does try to meddle in them, it is a bloody nuisance. There is no cause to lament its decline. Its reactionary nature, from the day of its foundation, should be unremittingly exposed. Such a clearcut standpoint contrasts sharply with PF’s attitude, which is characterised by extreme vacillation. It is as though he saw the Labour Party as a wicked uncle from whom he struggles to free himself, yet whom he cannot bring himself unequivocally to reject.


The present Labour government holds office at a time which is particularly fraught with dangers for the working class. For, as the SWP itself warns, as capitalism moves deeper into crisis, the danger of fascism will grow. In the face of this threat, PF and the SWP not only promote the reformist idea that the Labour Party is a lesser evil than the Tories, but also narrow the target of their anti-fascist struggles down to openly fascist groups like the NF, etc. This lowers the vigilance of the working class towards those forms of fascism which are fostered by the state, and which take root in the apparatus of the state itself. Such forms of fascism have been making gains during Labour’s term of office, and to put forward, as the SWP does, a line that lowers the guard of the working class towards this enemy indirectly contributes to the ideological preparation for fascism in Britain.

Even in terms of immediate economic concerns the Labour government is guilty of viciously anti-working-class policies. PF’s pamphlet opens with some informative facts and figures on the sufferings being inflicted on the working class as a result of attempts to shift the burden of the capitalist crisis off the shoulders of the capitalist class and onto the backs of the workers. The comparative success of these attempts so far, which PF documents in harrowing detail, is the achievement above all of the Labour Party, and these crimes should thus be laid at its door. Labour’s ’social contract’ has succeeded in cutting living standards and reducing workers’ power to fight back where the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act and ’counter-inflation policy’ failed. For the labour aristocracy of trade union bigwigs, etc., is in a much better position to control and divert workers’ rebellion than the Tories. When the latter tried to use their strong-arm methods they were scattered like nine-pins by a few hours’ activity by the miners. PF’s conviction that the Labour Party is a lesser evil than the Tories thus flies in the face of reality.

However, these economic struggles are by no means the whole story, for Labour is also playing an essential role in the preparation of even more rabid and openly fascist onslaughts on the working class. For history shows that fascism develops through stages. During the period when capitalism is moving towards outright fascist dictatorship (the stage we are now entering in Britain) preparatory measures are taken to weaken working-class organisation, particularly to isolate and weaken revolutionary workers’ organisations. In this period, openly fascist organisations are promoted both for use against working and progressive people, and so as to provide a pretext for fascistic state measures which are really directed against workers and progressives (e.g. the Public Order Act and so on). This stage of legislative preparation for fascism is now well advanced in Britain, and is the context in which much contemporary legislative activity should be seen. And even the most cursory examination of Labour’s record in this sphere shows that it has got away with much that the Tories failed to do: for instance, in the field of industrial relations, picketing, etc.; the Prevention of Terrorism Act; the ’Criminal Trespass’ Law: refinements in the Immigration Act, etc. All these new laws represent a clear move by British capitalism towards a fascist solution of its problems; they reduce workers ability to light back and thus bring forward the day when capitalism will dispense with its veil of democracy and attempt to rule directly and openly through fascist terror. The Labour Party has thus in this respect proved more dangerous than the Tories.

This experience is not new. ’Social democratic’ parties like the Labour Party were in power in Germany in 1933 and Austria in 1934 when the Nazis took over: and the contribution of these parties to the Nazis’ rise to power took the form of legislative measures ominously reminiscent of what Labour is getting away with now. Faced with such experiences from history, does PF Still feel more comfortable with a Labour government than a Tory one?!

The Labour government then, has attacked workers’ living standards, and has been laying the legal groundwork for fascism. But what about Labour’s relationship with the openly fascist and racist organizations? Surely the Labour Party at least blocks their growth? No, not at all. Far from constituting any obstacle to the growth of fascism, the Labour Party effectively instigates it. Take racism, for instance, i.e. the principal element of fascism’s current ideology. Labour s racist immigration legislation merely by its existence implies confirmation of the racist lie that immigration is the cause of the capitalist ills of unemployment, bad housing, etc As a result of this legislation, Labour has in its present term of office presided over the establishment of a racist immigration control apparatus, a fine organisational nucleus for the administration of apartheid in this country. And in the ideological field too, the present Labour government’s record stinks: take the instance where it accidentally-on-purpose leaked the racist Hawley report to Powell in the spring of 1976 thus ensuring that it was used to whip up propaganda tor a race war Those months (which also saw the racist press swing into action over things like the hotel bills of a small group of Asian immigrants from Malawi) will go down in history as a high point in the recruitment to fascist organisations, and the Labour government s active intervention to bring this about will remain in the record for all to see.

Socialists are thus duty-bound to expose the hollowness and hypocrisy of Labour’s claims to provide protection against the openly fascist organisations. They must popularise the lessons of history so as to put the working class on guard against the ’dirty tricks’ of the Labour Party. They must never forgive Labour for its part in instigating recruitment to openly fascist organisations and must never forget that it has been the Labour Party that has presided over the revival of these organisations from the pathetic bunch they were before the Wilson era into the vicious threat they are now becoming.

PF, by contrast, is oblivious to all this. He can only attack an ideological sitting-duck. He can only join in the hue-and-cry when the ideological going is easy. For instance, he can rail against Powell, the NF, etc. Well, who can’t? Any decent person can feel disgust at such creations of the capitalist crisis. One doesn’t have to be a socialist for that. Most of the prevailing schools of thought in our society are capable of at least intermittent revulsion at open racism. The task of socialism, however is not to rest content with such spontaneous revulsion but to raise it to the higher level of political awareness and understanding. The working class must be made aware that Labour’s policies are part-and-parcel of the move towards tascism during its term of office. The Labour Party is thus just as worthy of our profound feelings of class hatred as the more obviously vicious organisations.

PF’s ideology is, then, worse than useless in the task of winning the working class away from parliamentarism and leading it onto the revolutionary road. He unquestioningly puts forward the view that the Labour Party represents a genuine alternative to rule by the “people with property” and “their political party, the Tory Party” as also to the “capitalist Liberal party”. He thus ’confirms’ precisely what capitalism wants us all to believe – that the struggle between capitalism and socialism can be fought out in the parliamentary arena. Marxist-Leninists have always taken the opportunities presented by elections to expose the fraudulent nature of bourgeois parliamentarism. Not so PF. who eagerly laps up all the ’issues’ long after politically conscious workers have ceased to participate in the five-yearly farce.

As to the nature of the Labour Party, he confines himself to reformist remarks on what he sees as its shortcomings, rather than decisively breaking with it and denouncing its capitalist nature. He clings to the assumption that fascism could only be brought about if the existing fascist organisations came to power, when in fact it is quite possible that it could be introduced through Parliament by the Tory or Labour parties. He has totally failed to realise that the Labour Party is actively engaged in furthering the current trend towards fascism. He fails to see in it a class enemy, and thus vacillates in his attitude towards it.

The Chinese revolutionary writer Lu Hsun (1881-1936) used to ridicule those who, like PF, vacillate in the class struggle. In one of his essays, entitled ’Fair Play should be put off for the time being, he criticised a Chinese maxim which advocated ’fair play’ – “Don’t beat a dog in the water”. He gave numerous examples from recent history of the damage done to progressive causes by failure to take sufficient advantage of difficulties faced by reactionaries, from which he concluded that “a dog in the water may – or rather should – be beaten”. Unlike PF, who again and again forgives the Labour Party for its sins, Lu Hsun insisted that in the class struggle no equivocation is permissable in respect of those who have harmed the people’s cause: Sometimes a dog “may look hurt, but this is put on: it pretends to limp to enlist sympathy, so that it can go into hiding comfortably. It will come out later and make a fresh start by biting simple souls, then go on to ’throw stones at someone who has fallen into a well’ and commit all manner of crimes. And the reason for this is partly that those simple souls would not beat a dog in the water. So, strictly speaking, they are digging their own graves, and they have no right to blame fate or other people.”